Signs of mental health problems in children

It’s normal for children to have ups and downs that affect the way they feel and behave. But sometimes children don’t ‘bounce back’ from the downs, and this starts to affect other parts of their lives. This can be a sign that children are having mental health problems.

Below are some signs of mental health problems. If you notice any of these signs in your child, and the signs go on for more than a few weeks, it’s important to talk with your child and then get professional help.

Emotional and behaviour signs
Your child:

  • has repeated tantrums or consistently behaves in a defiant or aggressive way
  • seems sad or unhappy, or cries a lot
  • is afraid or worried a lot
  • gets very upset about being separated from you, or avoids social situations
  • starts behaving in ways that he’s outgrown, like sucking his thumb or wetting the bed
  • has trouble paying attention, can’t sit still or is restless.

Physical signs
Your child:

  • has trouble sleeping or eating
  • says she has physical pain – for example, headaches, stomach aches, nausea or other physical pains that don’t have a clear medical cause.

School and social signs
If your child is at school, you might also notice your child:

  • not doing as well as usual at school
  • having problems fitting in at school or getting along with other children
  • not wanting to go to social events like birthday parties.

Good mental health helps your child develop socially, emotionally, mentally and physically. You can support your child’s mental health with positive relationships, behaviour support, a healthy lifestyle and more.

Talking to your child about mental health problems

If you notice a sudden change in your child’s mood or behaviour that continues for a few weeks, encourage him to talk with you about what’s on his mind, and really listen to what he’s saying. Listening and showing that you understand can comfort your child if something is bothering him.

If you’re not sure how to talk with your child about mental health issues, here are some ideas that might help:

  • Try telling your child that you’ve noticed she seems sad and you want to help. Your child is more likely to talk openly with you about her feelings if you’re accepting and don’t judge or over-react to what she tells you.
  • Tell your child that it’s not unusual for children to feel worried, stressed or sad at times.
  • Tell your child that opening up about personal thoughts and feelings can be scary, but talking about a problem with an adult he trusts can help make feelings clearer.
  • Emphasise that your child isn’t alone. You’ll be there whenever she wants to talk.

If you can, it’s important to work out whether your child’s low mood is because of a specific, temporary situation or a more serious, continuing problem.

This can help you decide how best to help your child. For example, if your child is disappointed about not being invited to a birthday party, you might be able to help him cope with this yourself. But if your child is experiencing a serious and lasting problem like bullying, you need to work with his teachers to sort it out.

Poor mental health is no-one’s fault, and no-one is to blame.

Getting help for your child’s mental health problems

If the changes in your child’s mood or behaviour last for more than a few weeks, are distressing her and affecting her ability to get on with everyday activities and enjoy life, get professional help as soon as possible.

There are various professional support options, including:

  • your child’s teacher at preschool or school, or a school counsellor
  • your GP
  • a psychologist who is trained to work with children and families
  • a social worker
  • your local community health centre
  • your local mental health service.

If your child is aged 5-8 years, he can also talk with a Kids Helpline counsellor by calling 1800 551 800, or using the Kids Helpline email counselling service or the Kids Helpline web counselling service.

If you don’t know where to find the most appropriate services for your family, your GP is a good place to start.

Supporting your child through mental health problems can be hard. It’s important to look after yourself too. You can find support options on our mental health links and resources page. You can also call a parenting helpline.

Childhood mental health disorders

If your child’s mental health problems are interfering significantly with her life, a qualified professional might diagnose a mental health disorder.

Childhood mental health problems are usually grouped into two types:

  • conditions like depression and anxiety disorders
  • conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.

You can read more about how to recognise childhood mental health problems and disorders and seek help in the following articles:

Did you know that mental health difficulties affect one in seven Australian children aged 4-11 years?